Choosing and justifying a list of essential Grateful Dead shows – 20, 200 or even 2,000 – is treacherous work. Passionate challenge from fans, especially hardcore Deadheads and veteran tape traders, is guaranteed. Endless debate over set-list minutiae is inevitable. In fact, there is only one definitive list of the Dead's greatest concerts – and it includes every show they played, in every lineup, from their pizza-parlor-gig days as the Warlocks in 1965 until guitarist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. That long, strange trip was a continually unfolding tale of highs and trials, dedicated evolution and surrender to the moment, often caught vividly in the recording studio but told most immediately each night (or day) onstage. This list jumps and dances through the story, but it's not a bad place to start, if you're not in deep already: more than 40 hours of performance from key runs and one-nighters in every decade, drawn from archival releases, the vast amount of circulating recordings and my own good times with the music. These 20 shows are genuinely essential in at least one way: If I had no other live Dead in my collection, I would be happy and fulfilled with this. Luckily, there is more. I already have lots of it. I will never have enough.
The Matrix, San Francisco
December 1st, 1966
In late 1966, more than a year into their evolution, the Grateful Dead were still in the early stages of their psychedelia: an acid-dance band with bar-band aggression, tripping in its jams but just starting to write and largely reliant on folk and blues covers. These three sets at the Matrix – a club founded by Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin – catch the original quintet in primal, exuberant form, slipping early originals such as "Alice D. Millionaire" (a pun on a newspaper headline after Owsley, the band's sound man and resident chemist, was busted) amid R&B-party favors (the Olympics' 1960 hit "Big Boy Pete") and future cover staples including the traditional "I Know You Rider" and John Phillips' "Me and My Uncle." In a spirited thrashing of "New Minglewood Blues," guitarist Bob Weir sings like a hip, brash kid, which he was (Weir had recently turned 19). "Welcome to another evening of confusion and high-frequency stimulation," Jerry Garcia announces in the first set. The long, strange trip was under way.
Winterland, San Francisco
March 18th, 1967
Warner Bros. Records released the Dead's debut album, The Grateful Dead – a sonically brittle, high-speed version of the group's stage act and songbook – on March 17th, 1967. That evening and again on the 18th, the Dead opened for Chuck Berry at Winterland, performing much of that record's material on the second night with more natural vigor and plenty of room for Garcia to go long and bright on lead guitar. His fusion of folk guitar and bluegrass facility with blues language and Indian modality, shot forward in a clean, stinging treble, is on dynamic display in a rightly extended "Cream Puff War" (cruelly faded out after two minutes on the LP), Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and the Dead's signature rave-up on "Viola Lee Blues," originally cut in 1928 by Cannon's Jug Stompers. Also note the thrilling, slippery surge underneath – bassist Phil Lesh and drummer Bill Kreutzmann pushing and tugging at the beat – as Garcia affirms his nickname, "Captain Trips," overhead.
Dance Hall, Rio Nido, California
September 3rd, 1967
Time was an elastic concept on a Grateful Dead stage – a song ended only when every possibility embedded in the structure and set loose by the group's improvising empathy was tested and fulfilled. Lesh thought enough of this night's 31-minute stretching of Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" – most of it given to Garcia and organist Ron "Pigpen" McKernan's hard-lovin' vocal charm – to include it on his 1997 live anthology, Fallout From the Phil Zone. "Song" is a loose word here: Choruses and chord progressions are departure points. "Viola Lee Blues" is epic, rude hypnosis, twice the length of the version on The Grateful Dead. The accelerating instrumental break is a glorious connected fury – five voices racing in parallel but jamming as one. The long, early roll on "Alligator," a chugging, spaced-blues feature of 1968's Anthem of the Sun, was further evidence that the Dead's rapidly advancing idea of dance music on that album – a combination of acid, freed rhythm and no fear – was on its way.
Carousel Ballroom, San Francisco
February 14th, 1968
Anthem of the Sun, the Dead's second album, may be the most authentic musical document of the San Francisco renaissance: a union of interior psychedelic exploration and truly liberated rock & roll; a continuous drive to light via mad studio alchemy and the Dead's already proven specialty, live performance. Elements of this show – the official opening of the Carousel, a collective attempt by the Dead and other local bands to mount an alternative to the Fillmore's dominance – were used on Anthem; the show was also broadcast live on the radio and officially issued, at last, in 2009 as Road Trips Vol. 2 No. 2. It is basically Anthem as it happened every night, on the way to vinyl. The weightless rapture of "Dark Star" – recorded in studio miniature the previous year, released as a single in April 1968 – is already in mutating bloom, segueing into the dadaist funk of "China Cat Sunflower" and the elliptical rhythm of "The Eleven," while the second half of the show is every song on Anthem live, in sequence and excelsis.
Dream Bowl, Vallejo, California
February 22nd, 1969
This show, on the eve of the long weekend at the Fillmore West that was taped for 1969's Live Dead, is a beautifully recorded artifact of the Dead at a different, simultaneous juncture: during a break from the studio sessions for 1969's Aoxomoxoa, where they were spending a fortune crystallizing the cryptic but compelling lysergic romanticism of the songs Garcia was writing with lyricist Robert Hunter. The first set opens with two songs that would appear on that album: the outlaw ballad "Dupree's Diamond Blues" and the delicate "Mountains of the Moon," the latter sung by Garcia with a brave (for the stage) vulnerability, framed by spidery guitar. The "Dark Star" that follows is arguably an equal – in spatial elegance and endearing, monkish vocal harmonies – of the one immortalized on Live Dead. Add a hellbent second set (starting with the choppy cheer of Aoxomoxoa's "Doin' That Rag") and astonishing fidelity, and it's hard to believe this night is not yet an official live album.
McFarlin Auditorium, Dallas
December 26th, 1969
The addition of acoustic sets to the live experience, at the end of the Sixties, was a characteristically eccentric progression for the Dead: a smart step back – to the group's folk, bluegrass and roughed-up-country origins as the Wildwood Boys and Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions – on the way to a great leap forward as songwriters and vocal harmonizers. The unplugged set in Dallas opens with a song from the Mother McCree days – "The Monkey and the Engineer," by the Bay Area-based bluesman Jesse Fuller – and includes the traditional "Little Sadie" and the country mourning of "Long Black Limousine," recently cut by Merle Haggard. The psychedelic-ballroom era is still here in "Dark Star" and "Turn on Your Love Light." But in between the two is crackling proof of the group's emerging voice, along with emphatic notice of utopia's end: "New Speedway Boogie," Garcia and Hunter's memoir of the death and debacle, only three weeks earlier, during the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont.
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